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Tracking down the elusive jaguar
Conservationists use perfume, cameras in quest to protect a ‘magical’ creature
Question of the Day
GUATOPO NATIONAL PARK, Venezuela | The search begins where a dirt road ends, in a forest festooned with vines and filled with the chatter of trilling birds. This is the realm of jaguars, and a young biologist has made it her mission to find them.
Emiliana Isasi-Catala wades through a creek and moves nimbly through the foliage, scanning the dark earth covered with fallen leaves for the distinctive round toes of jaguar tracks and the faint trails of smaller animals on which they prey: agoutis, tapirs, peccaries and armadillos.
“A track. It looks like jaguar,” she exclaims, while climbing a steep slope. Squatting to examine the swipe of bare earth, she concludes that a big cat was moving downhill and slipped a little. She speaks into her audio recorder: “Signs of a feline. Let’s see if we find more tracks up there.”
Ms. Isasi-Catala, 32, is carrying out the first study in Venezuela to use cameras equipped with motion sensors to estimate the size of a jaguar population. So far, her results have yielded an estimate of one jaguar every 12 square miles in the heart of this national park southeast of Caracas. Her count suggests about 40 jaguars in the entire park if further studies confirm similar numbers in other areas.
Her search is driven by a sense of personal connection to elusive creatures that even when captured on video camera remain mysterious and ghostly, just beyond reach. She also sees a larger purpose in her research: helping the jaguars survive through the protection of a network of wildlife reserves and corridors across Latin America.
Jaguars are the largest land predators in the Americas. They once roamed widely from the southwestern United States to Argentina, but have lost more than 40 percent of their natural territory and have disappeared from Uruguay, El Salvador and many other areas. Heavy hunting for their spotted coats decimated their numbers in the 1960s and early 1970s until the pelt trade was largely halted.
Today, jaguars are listed as a “near threatened” species. They are vulnerable because of expanding farmland and roads that are carving away at their habitat, and conflicts with ranchers who view them as cattle killers and shoot them on sight or poison them. No one has any good estimates of how many jaguars are left in the wild, and that’s why work like Ms. Isasi-Catala’s is important.
In Guatopo National Park, she often comes upon the stumps of trees felled by illegal loggers and the camps of poachers who hunt animals that are prey for jaguars. She saw National Guard troops arrest three hunters carrying shotguns, and suspects hunters or loggers were to blame for stealing one of her cameras.
In spite of the problems, she is encouraged that a healthy number of jaguars remain in the park — and if this “umbrella species” at the top of the food chain is alive and well, it’s a good sign that the rest of the ecosystem is intact.
“Her work is very valuable,” said Rafael Hoogesteijn, a Venezuelan veterinarian and jaguar researcher who works in Brazil for the organization Panthera, dedicated to saving wildcats, and who focuses on strategies for preventing jaguars from preying on cattle.
Besides her groundbreaking work documenting jaguars, he said, Ms. Isasi-Catala also is gathering a wealth of information about their prey in a park that is a crossroads for wildlife. “It is a very important area for jaguar conservation,” Mr. Hoogesteijn said.
One day in July, Ms. Isasi-Catala was hiking to the top of a ridge to check an infrared camera set up to capture video and photographs of any passing jaguar. She plotted a course using a GPS she wore around her neck, and three park rangers swung machetes to clear a path.
Checking the camera that she strapped to a tree one month earlier, she found that it recorded only a small number of videos — she later saw that they were images of tapirs — and moved the camera to another tree nearby where the ground was covered with tracks of deer and armadillos.
She aimed the camera using a red laser pointer and activate it. The motion sensor would trigger the camera whenever anything passed, day or night.
Her study is the focus of her doctoral thesis at Simon Bolivar University. She has conducted her research on a shoestring budget, by gathering donated cameras and buying others with her own money. She relies on her father to drive her research volunteers in an old, battered Range Rover, and works late nights writing results and browsing her video clips, rarely finding a jaguar.
By Tom Harris and Madhav Khandekar
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